Springfield, Mass. — ''Only in America can a poor, black boy reared in a small, segregated town grow up to be elected to a hall of fame of any kind,'' said Clarence E. (Bighouse) Gaines, basketball coach at Winston-Salem State University.
As he talked, he looked back on a career that has spanned 35 years, from 1947 as a rookie coach at the relatively obscure North Carolina school to last week with his induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
The first inductee who spent his entire coaching career at a predominantly black college, Gaines says race is no longer the critical issue it once was in sports.
''During my first 20 years I was busy riding the bus with my players, trying to sit at a lunch counter for a bite to eat, and drinking 'colored' water,'' he said.
''Race is still a factor at the coaching and administrative levels, although more major colleges are beginning to hire black head coaches, especially in basketball,'' he said. ''When I started out, I had no place to go but to a black college.''
Gaines's last 15 years have been pace setters. His banner year was 1966-67 when the Rams swept top national small college honors, becoming the first black school to win an NCAA basketball championship. Showcasing future pro star Earl (the Pearl) Monroe, who was both Player of the Year and scoring leader, the team posted a 31-2 record and enabled Gaines to win Coach of the Year honors.
Today's cagers are stronger and really smarter than those of his early days, Gaines says, but they need more guidance. ''They have to contend with so many issues - drugs, crime, broken families, lax early training - that put stress on their lives,'' he said. ''Often a coach has to be parent, mentor, consoler, and counselor.''
Gaines believes strongly that the top priority for today's athletes should be a career after sports, bolstered by a good education. To achieve that goal, he says, varsity athletics must be restructured down at the junior and senior high school levels.
''Athletes at that age should receive no special privileges,'' he said. ''Schools should demand classroom study for young athletes, even the stars, before college. They should attend more classes during the school year and play more ball in the summer.''
He encourages his players to graduate from college, and over the years has watched with pride as many of them have moved on to become political office holders, educators, business entrepreneurs, physicians, and other professionals.
As for his own playing career at Morgan State, Gaines was primarily a football player who switched to basketball only as an off-season pastime, and even when he started coaching the sport it was as a ''temporary'' assignment. Now, looking back through the path on which that assignment has taken him -- he is the nation's winningest Division II active coach with 683 victories and 299 losses -- he praises the people who ''muscled me forward and made me a success.''
He speaks of his two Paducah, Ky. ''mothers,'' Olivia Gaines and Aunt Nancy Strickland, ''I was growing so big so fast -- he is 6 ft. 4 in. and 300 pounds -- they had to work a month on their menial salaries to buy me a suit,'' he cracks. He thanks his wife, Clara; daughter, Lisa McDonald; son, Clarence Jr., and his mentor, John B. McLendon, the first black coach elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame, ''who taught me how to coach basketball.''
Noting that his personal career parallels the rise of blacks -- athletes, coaches, and colleges -- in sports, Gaines praised a fellow inductee, Alva O. Duer, retired after 22 years (1949-71) as executive director of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), as the man who paved the way for black college teams to become part of the mainstream of intercollegiate varsity competition.
''I always believed that all of America indeed should be involved in our tournament, and that included black colleges,'' Duer told a jammed gallery as his tableau was unveiled in the traditional Hall of Fame ceremony.
Originally formed to showcase the nation's small colleges in a national basketball tournament, the NAIA at first did not include any predominantly black schools. But in the early 1950s, in response to a three-year campaign by blacks to compete, Duer proposed District 29 and a tournament to determine a black college entrant for the tourney.
Tennessee State became the first such team in 1953, followed by Prairie View in 1954, and Texas Southern in 1955. McLendon took the coaching reins of Tennessee State in 1954, making the Tigers NAIA champions three years in a row, 1957, 1958, and 1959.
''My teams would not have participated if it hadn't been for Duer,'' recalled McLendon, who attended the ceremony. ''We were invited to a preseason NAIA tournament in Kansas City in 1954. I told Al we would play if we were housed in a downtown hotel along with the white teams. Al called the chamber of commerce. The hotels were opened, and my team was in.''
Another 1982 Hall of Fame inductee involved in black college basketball history was Willis Reed Jr., who played for the Grambling team that won the 1961 NAIA championship. He later starred with the New York Knickerbockers in the National Basketball Association. He is now varsity basketball coach at Creighton, an NCAA Division I school in Nebraska.
Other players inducted this year were Hal Greer, who came out of little-known Marshall University to star star with the Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia 76 ers in the NBA; Slater Martin, who played his college ball at Texas, then was a key man on those famous Minneapolis Laker teams of the late 1940s and early '50 s; and former Kentucky star Frank Ramsey, who gained pro fame as the ''sixth man'' of the Boston Celtics. Elected as a coach along with Gaines was the late Everett Case, whose North Carolina State teams were among the nation's most successful for many years. Duer was elected as a contributor.